Consumer eViews
FLORIDA CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER TOM GALLAGHER'S WEEKLY NEWSLETTER

Volume 2, Number 38, September 19, 2005  

The devastation and tragedy inflicted by Hurricane Katrina on thousands of Americans and their communities has dominated the news in recent weeks and is a painful reminder of how destructive nature can be. 

We now have Tropical Storm Rita heading towards Florida, with the potential to be a Category Three hurricane or greater when it makes landfall.  Let’s not leave our safety, and the safety of our families, to chance. 

Make necessary preparations for the storm now and evacuate if advised to do so.  Take important documents and medications, and have adequate cash with you.

We stand ready to assist you.

                     -- Tom Gallagher


GALLAGHER: SOUTH FLORIDIANS MUST PREPARE

Tropical Storm Rita Could Become Strong Category Two or Three Hurricane

Florida’s Chief Financial Officer and State Fire Marshal Tom Gallagher is urging residents and visitors from Jupiter to the Florida Keys and up to Englewood on the Gulf to prepare for Tropical Storm Rita, which could be a strong Category Two or Category Three hurricane when it passes the Lower Keys sometime tomorrow afternoon. Residents in the Lower Keys are under a mandatory evacuation, and Gallagher is urging compliance.

“This storm is forecast to produce surges up to nine feet, which could cover many of the islands,” said Gallagher, who as State Fire Marshal oversees search and rescue functions at the Emergency Operations Center. “I know it is overwhelming, given the number of storms that have hit our state in the past year, but we are facing another serious storm.  Get prepared and comply with any evacuation orders.”

The Department of Financial Services’ storm hotline, 1-800-22-STORM, has remained activated since last year’s four hurricanes pummeled the state.  The hotline can assist residents in preparing for a storm as well as dealing with damage after a storm.

The state’s meteorologist this morning said a high-pressure ridge that was expected to keep the storm on a westerly track is quickly dissipating, making conditions optimal for a northern turn toward the Gulf Coast. Gallagher said Panhandle residents should also be vigilant.

Gallagher recommends that property owners take the following actions in the event of severe weather damage:

 •           Make emergency repairs to protect from further damage, document the damage and repairs in writing, and with receipts and photos.
•           Immediately report property damage to your insurance agent and company.
•           Maintain copies of your household inventory and other documentation, including photos.  This will assist the adjuster in assessing the value of the destroyed property.
•           Take precautions if the damage requires you to leave your home.  Let your agent or insurance company know your temporary forwarding address and phone number.  
•           Beware of fly-by-night repair businesses. Hire licensed and reputable service people.
•           If considering the assistance of a public insurance adjuster, verify that they are licensed by calling the department’s toll-free consumer helpline at 1-800-342-2762.
•           Be sure you understand how much a public insurance adjuster is charging and what services are included before signing any contract.

Gallagher also suggests these storm preparation tips:

 •           Be sure you know what your deductible is for hurricane losses.  Most policies now have a hurricane deductible of two to five percent of a home’s insured value.  If your property is damaged, you will be responsible for a portion of the repair costs.
•           Inventory your household items, including receipts, purchase dates and serial numbers.  Photograph or videotape your possessions.  Keep copies of this information and your insurance policies in a safe place and keep the originals in a safe deposit box.
•           Write down the name, address and claims-reporting telephone number of your insurance company, which may differ from your agent’s contact information.  Keep this information in a safe place and make sure you have access to it if you are forced to evacuate your home.
•           When a hurricane threatens, take action to protect your property.  Buy the materials you need to secure your property and minimize your losses.  Cover your windows with shutters, siding or plywood.  Move vehicles into a garage or carport when possible.  Grills and/or patio furniture should be moved inside.
•           Keep materials such as plywood and plastic on hand in case you need to make temporary repairs after a storm.  Keep receipts for those repairs so that your insurance company can reimburse you.

Hurricane season continues until November 30.  For more hurricane preparation tips, visit the Department of Financial Services’ web site at www.MyFloridaCFO.com.  

“Preparedness is the best defense – both for the storm and the aftermath that could lure unlicensed adjusters and scam artists,” Gallagher said.  “But more important is to heed any evacuation orders – nothing is more important than your and your family’s life.”
 


CHECK CASHING FOR HURRICANE KATRINA EVACUEES

Hurricane Katrina survivors who have been temporarily relocated may be receiving benefits from government agencies.  These benefits are being distributed in the form of individual checks written to the survivor directly from FEMA or from the Social Security Administration.  Occasionally, some Red Cross agencies have been giving out debit cards for assistance that can be used at Wal-Mart stores.  Unemployment benefits are also being given as checks, even though the issuing agency prefers to directly deposit the benefits.

The next hurdle these survivors must cross is where do they cash the paper checks? 

To assist persons displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Dennis, the Office of Financial Regulation has issued an emergency order to allow Florida credit unions to offer services for non-members. Services include check cashing and wire transfers.

Another option for people who need to cash government-issued disaster relief checks would be check cashing stores.  However, consumers should be aware that most check cashing establishments impose a fee for services.  The fees charged for the cashing of government assistance and benefit checks are limited by Florida law to no more than 3 percent of the face value of the check with proper identification, and 4 percent of the face value without proper identification.  It is advisable for consumers to shop around at different check cashing establishments, as fees will vary from company to company.  


FORMER BROWARD COUNTY AGENT CHARGED WITH STEALING $92,000 IN PREMIUMS FROM MORE THAN 50 CUSTOMERS

    
Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher announced that a former insurance agent was arrested today on charges that he misappropriated more than $92,000 in insurance premiums from more than 50 customers.  He faces up to 45 years in prison if convicted on the charges.
 
Joel Berg, 58, former owner of J.B. Williams & Company in Weston and Seacoast Marine Insurance, Inc. in Fort Lauderdale was arrested at his home this morning by detectives with the Department of Financial Services, Division of Insurance Fraud.  He was booked into the Broward County Jail on charges of organized fraud and misappropriation of insurance premium.  Bond was set at $28,500. 
 
“Beyond the criminal act of stealing, this agent put his customers at risk of not having the coverage they need to protect their property,” said Gallagher, who oversees the Department of
Financial Services.  CONTINUED
 
The fraud division's investigation determined that, from June of 2002 through March of 2003, Berg accepted insurance premiums for marine insurance from at least 50 customers and did not forward the premium to the insurance company.  In each instance, investigators said, Berg received the insurance premiums from the customers and deposited the funds into his personal bank account. 
 
The Broward County State Attorney's Office is prosecuting the charges.  The department’s Division of Agent and Agency Services revoked his agent’s license in April.
 
The Department of Financial Services, Division of Insurance Fraud, investigates various forms of fraud in insurance, including health, life, auto, property and workers’ compensation insurance. Anyone with information about this case or another possible fraud scheme should call the department’s Fraud Fighters Hotline at 1-800-378-0445.  A reward of up to $25,000 may be offered for information leading to an arrest and conviction.
 

CONSUMER ALERT
GALLAGHER WARNS ABOUT NEW IDENTITY THEFT SCAM

Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher is warning Floridians to be on the lookout for a new identity theft scheme.

In the scheme a victim receives a phone call from someone claiming to be a local court worker who tells the victim they failed to report for jury duty.  To further put the victim off-guard, they may say an arrest warrant has been issued. When the victim says they never received a jury duty notice, the scammer asks for personal information to check their records.

“You should be wary of anyone who calls asking for personal information,” said Gallagher.  “No legitimate business would ask for such information by phone.”

This latest identity theft scheme has already been reported in Michigan, Ohio, Texas, Arizona, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Oregon and Washington state.

Gallagher said this scheme seems to be a spin-off of one in which a caller or an e-mailer poses as an employee of a financial institution requesting information to re-activate a victim’s bank account.  And Gallagher has echoed concerns from Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson that scammers may set up fake charities to prey on people’s sympathy for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Gallagher offered these tips to Floridians:

  • Do not give your personal information to a telephone or e-mail solicitor.

  • Only give to disaster relief charities you know are reliable and beware of "copy-cat" names that sound like reputable charities.

  • Make checks payable to the charitable organization and not to an individual collecting a donation.

  • Carry only a few credit cards with you.

  • Shred all credit card receipts and solicitations, cancelled checks and financial documents before throwing them away.

  • Don’t leave outgoing mail in your mailbox overnight.

  • Check your credit report at least twice a year.



Consumer Services HelpLine
(800) 342-2762